As a multiracial Asian American parent raising multiracial Asian American daughters in a media landscape much different from the one in which I grew up, I often think about how the images and role models, both fictional and real, to which they have access may shape their imaginations, aspirations, and ideas of what is possible. The decades-long discourse around diversity, and the lack thereof, in children’s literature and media, often starts with the idea of the importance of mirrors in which children can see themselves, their worlds, and their life experiences reflected back to them, especially in the form of textual and multimedia representations both performed and created by people like them. But more and more, as my children get older and become able to both converse with texts as fans and critics and become creators and producers of texts in their own right, I find myself thinking about the need to go beyond reflective mirrors or even windows through which different possibilities may be glimpsed. We need doorways through which we can step to create new realities. This may seem a slight distinction, but it’s one whose importance I’m learning from my children day by day.
My family and I recently got the chance to see a preview screening of DreamWorks and Pearl Animation Studio’s Abominable (opening today, September 27), geared toward garnering Asian American community support for opening weekend theater attendance. In the run-up to the opening, others have already written about the significance of the film’s production by a partnership of American and Chinese studios, the importance of its women-led production crew, its gorgeous travelogue-esque visuals, and its cultural authenticity (NoC has covered the film here and here). And while I can confirm that my wife, our daughters, and I enjoyed the beautiful art, the use of music throughout the film (and its connection to the main character’s late father), the quintessential “loner girl with emotional baggage and lost, misunderstood creature go on a journey and save each other along the way” story, the gender and racial/ethnic diversity of talent behind and in front of the camera (or in the case, behind the mic), and, of course, the cute monster and concomitant humor that necessarily marks a successful animated feature aiming to please both children and their grown-ups (you’ll be talking about Dave the guard and the endangered snakes with the, um, unique identifying feature long after the movie ends, trust me), what I take away from Abominable are insights from the conversation my girls got to have with stars Chloe Bennet (voice of protagonist Yi and star of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Tenzing Norgay Trainor (voice of Yi’s friend Jin and best known for playing the little brother on Disney Channel’s Liv and Maddie), and a conversation I had recently with my youngest.
Lucy, almost 15, and Emi, almost 11, grew up watching Tenzing Norgay Trainor playing a very blonde Dove Cameron’s racially ambiguous little brother Parker on the Disney Channel (during which time I told them where he got his name and made sure they saw his “This Is Who I Am” short), and Lucy recently became an MCU convert, bingeing all six seasons of AoS in a month and becoming a big Daisy “Quake” Johnson fan. Thus they were very excited to be able to meet two of the film’s stars who, like them, are mixed-race Asian Americans, voicing explicitly Asian (rather than deracinated, ambiguous, or white-washed) characters in a movie aimed at their age group.
Teen Lucy got to the heart of the representation issue with this question: “For us, being able to watch this movie is amazing because not only are the kids in the movie Asian, they’re played by actors like you, who are just like us. And we know that our parents weren’t able to see themselves in the media when they were growing up. So what does it mean to you to be able to be in a movie like this?”
Chloe Bennet’s answer: “You know, it means everything, because growing up, it’s important to see yourself on screen and feel like you can relate to something that you’re watching, especially when we watch so much stuff on TV and on our phones and on YouTube. So you love to be able to go, ‘Oh, I’m like that! That’s so cool!’ And so having that moment with Yi, and for [Tenzing] with Jin, was really, really special and exciting to get to be a part of that.”
Aspiring performer Emi, who finds in Chloe and Tenzing role models on multiple levels — as mixed Asian actors succeeding in an overwhelmingly white business at young ages — asked for their advice in achieving her dream and doing what they do. Tenzing’s advice: “I would say just to not give up. You have to think that your time will come, because it is rough. It’s kind of rough to get into at the start, we just got to keep going. We get a lot of no’s, sadly, but a yes will come eventually, I promise.” Chloe continued, “And don’t let the no’s [discourage you]. It’s such a fun job, it’s a really, really fun job, but it’s also really difficult. It’s very difficult in a way that makes you stronger. So remember when things get difficult that that’s just you getting stronger. Because there’s a lot of people that want you to be certain things or want you to be a certain way, and you seem to have a really good grasp of who you are, so it’s important to just remember that the whole time.”
Heartened by Chloe’s advice to stay true to yourself, Emi shared that she found in her research that Chloe has spoken about growing up with ADHD and anxiety, and that she too lives with those challenges, making Chloe even more of a role model for her. “That’s okay!” she responded. “That just means that we’re really, really good at registering emotions. And that just means that we feel really deeply, which means that you’re probably a very good performer. Because when you feel really deeply, sometimes it’s really good, and sometimes it’s really bad, and it’s good that you know that about yourself. It’s just only gonna help you. So it’s super exciting to hear that you’re going to channel that into art and creating because that’s the most important thing to do with that. High five for us! It just makes us more special.”
Our personal connections to the movie, the characters, and the artists behind them made me think even more about why it is that these perennial conversations about diversity and representation are so fraught with emotion and import (even when talking about a cartoon about a girl trying to take her monster home), how marginalized communities flock to every media representation in hopes that one day, we won’t have to, because there will be so many, and in such a diversity, that it will be moot. It will be normal. It will just be. While thinking these things over, I happened to read a recent New York Times Sunday Review opinion essay by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah titled “What Does It Mean to ‘Look Like Me’?” In it, he questions and problematizes the entire premise behind the impulse to look for and create media representations of and by marginalized communities. Appiah writes that “the visual metaphor [of “looking like me’] usually signifies […] a kinship of social identity,” but that it is further complicated by having two sides. On one, you have what might be called the mirror phenomenon — “‘speaking our truths’ — […]exploring in-group cultural commonalities.” Appiah’s other side is evinced by Crazy Rich Asians: rather than a reflective realism, “[w]hat matters is that it’s a Hollywood film about Asians in which Asians rule. This has special significance, the writer Jiaying Fan says, when it comes to ‘Asian-Americans, a largely made-up group that is united, more than anything else, by a historical marginalization.'” To put it another way, it’s not about reflecting shared reality, but rather showing a doorway to shared possibilities. As Appiah puts it, “We want our dreams, not just our realities, to be represented.” After talking about Black Panther, he continues, “What such films deliver is a way of ‘looking like me’ that’s as much about aspiration as identification. We say that their characters look like us; maybe what we mean is that we wish to look like them.’ Or perhaps, as I was soon to learn from a casual conversation with my youngest, we just want to see people who look like us go on adventures like in all those movies with white protagonists, because maybe that means that we can have adventures too.
“What did you like about Abominable?” I asked Emi. I expected her to say Everest (a plushie of whom sits by her bed), or Yi’s violin playing, or Yi’s wisecracking Nai Nai, or even the running gags with the aforementioned snakes and Dave the guard (trust me!). But she surprised me. “I liked that it was about an Asian girl having an adventure,” she said. “Why is that important?” I asked. “Some people make fun of Asian people,” she started. “I liked the movie because it was about an Asian girl trying to find home in herself.” I goggled at how casually deep my little girl had just been. “Did you say ‘for herself’ or ‘in herself’?’ I asked for clarification. “‘In herself,” Emi confirmed, and then went back to what she had been doing before I started asking her questions.
For my little girl, Yi’s journey provided a mirror of what it can look like for a young girl, who happens to look a little like her, to find home in herself, and a doorway through which she can imagine the steps of her own journey homeward. As her father, I can’t think of a better example of how and why art and representation matter.